I’m not sure what to make of this novel by Ramona Ausubel. It has the feeling of a fairy tale, but one in which the horrors are real. It’s a tribute to the power of storytelling, but it also exposes the limits of the tales we tell. It’s a strange book.
The book is set mostly in a tiny Romanian village called Zalischik. When the novel begins, it’s 1939, and the Jewish villagers are just starting to hear whispers of war. What to do? Their people have moved on again and again, and they don’t want to move anymore. So they decide to create a world where they don’t have to move, where only they exist, and where they can start again.
It’s a pretty picture, and it fills the villagers with hope. But making a new world means giving up the old one, which most aren’t entirely willing to do, regardless of what they say aloud. And, of course, the new world still contains human selfishness and sickness. It takes a while to settle on rules that limit harm, and the work requires some compromises, including the breaking up of a family. The fantasy holds for years—long enough for the novel’s narrator, Lena, to marry and have children in this new world.
Eventually, however, the outside world intervenes, and Lena must learn to live in a bigger world. The story has fallen apart, but the story continues, too. As one character says, “There is always a story. No matter what we do, it can’t help but unfold.” It’s just that there’s no way to totally control how it unfolds.
The rest of the book involves characters telling stories to each other, sometimes lying to get what they want. But the lies are also a sort of kindness, sometimes protecting people from pain. It’s complicated. And the story Lena tells herself is one of remembrance, so that she doesn’t forget who she is and where she is from. The story may keep unfolding in ways she doesn’t want, but she can hold on to her truth. Or, she can choose to elide the horrors she’s better off forgetting so that she can focus on the good around her.